November 30, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Faith in democracy is ‘spiritual belief’

Religion isn't as narrow as Matt Taibbi thinks.

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Most Americans get their information about politics from the press corps. Members of the press corps prefer easy binaries in communicating to their audience. Therefore, most people tend to think politics has two sides. There’s a multiverse of sides, though. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does politics actually make sense.

Take, for instance, “messaging.” Here’s a commonplace critique of the Democratic Party—why can’t they speak forcefully? For one reason, they are not Republicans. The GOP is more or less streamlined, racially, economically and religiously. When one Republican speaks, he (most of them are indeed men) tends to speak for all. The Democrats, however, are a Big Tent. When one of them speaks, they do not, and cannot, speak for all. The party is racially, economically and religiously diverse.

Politics has a multiverse of sides. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does it actually make sense.

When the Republicans talk about faith, they can be explicit. That’s the entitlement of a religiously conservative political minority that (now) controls and benefits from the country’s counter-majoritarian institutions (the Senate, the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, etc.). When the Democrats talk about faith, they are not explicit, because they won’t risk alienating one of the many forms of religious adherence that constitute the Democratic Party’s base. Remember the Democrats have religious conservatives in their ranks. The Republicans, however, don’t have religious liberals. They speak with one voice whereas the Democrats, as it were, speak in tongues.

When you put a thing that’s in focus next to a thing that’s not in focus, the thing that’s in focus will naturally get more attention than the thing that’s not. Moreover, the thing that’s in focus, by dint of getting more attention, ends up defining the thing that’s not. To wit: When the Republicans talk about faith, they attract the press corps’ attention, because their expression is explicit. The Democrats don’t, because theirs is not.

Here’s the tip jar!

Moreover, the Republican notion of what counts as religion, generally, overrides the Democratic notion of the same. One of the insidious outcomes of this binary way of thinking is the mistaken belief that the Democrats don’t know how to talk to religious Americans. Another is that religious Americans are exclusively found among the Republicans. The GOP is the party of religion, the Democrats of something else.

That the Republicans prefer this binary way of thinking should not be surprising. It is, and has always been, to their advantage. What is surprising, however, is the critics of the Democratic Party echoing those preferences. Here’s Matt Taibbi, of Rolling Stone, shortly after Election Day: “The lack of a religious tradition, even among parents, has created a new kind of Democratic voter who has embraced politics as a replacement for their spiritual beliefs,” he said. “They are talking about things, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or environmentalism, they sound like religious people when they speak.”

Taibbi is almost certainly projecting here. He’s a product of bourgeois affirmation and comfort, and of elite institutions on the east coast. He’s also hostile toward faith. He moves among like-minded leftists who view religion, as Karl Marx did, as the opium of the people. When he says the Democrats don’t have a “religious tradition,” that’s a good thing. What’s bad is treating politics as a replacement for “spiritual beliefs.”

In the process, however, Taibbi ends up giving credence to the Republican allegation that the Democrats worship at the altar of partisan power. He seems to think he’s helping liberate the minds of the people but, being as captive to binary thinking as the press corps is, he’s mostly confusing them. To reiterate: there’s a multiverse of sides. Only after opening one’s mind to the possibilities does politics actually make sense.

Here’s what makes sense. One, the Democrats are a party of religious people. It includes Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, religious conservatives and religious liberals. Saying they don’t know how to talk to religious people suggests that you don’t know the party—or, like Taibbi, that you define “religion” from the right.

Two, the right’s definition of religion is too narrow for a party as diverse as the Democrats are. Religion can be just God Talk, but it can also be belief in our ability and duty to make America a better place for all people, and then committing to collective actions realizing that belief. It can be, in other words, something like Black Lives Matter and environmentalism. Taibbi is right in saying some Democrats lack a “religion tradition.” He’s wrong, however, in saying politics is a replacement for “spiritual belief.” That, after all, is the root of all Democrats’ faith in democracy.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Taibbi (somehow still taken seriously by SOME people after #MeToo accusations) is ignoring huge parts of the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to name a few of the Christian faiths that are actively involved in faith-based social and economic justice movements throughout the country. Yoga and meditation (totally lefty practices!) are faith-based. Even a group of Amish Christians showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest. In my neighborhood, most Jewish families belong to a synagogue and observe traditions such as bar/bat mitzvah. My Unitarian Universalist faith calls out the democratic process as one of our seven core beliefs. That the Right has captured a certain part of fundamentalist Christianity over social issues is one of the tragedies of our time; read Frank Schaeffer’s story about how and why that happened. I think it is sad to raise kids without a faith identity, and I think it is part of what fuels the “my own interest”, “win at all costs” individualistic and selfish political culture we live in.

  2. John Smart on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Interesting analysis, agree mostly – BUT Big Tent or not that is no excuse for the ridiculous , pathetic messaging from the Democrats. This year was slam dunk and except for Biden Democrats failed on a rather epic scale. Why ? Horrible messaging – Democrats convey weakness and weakness wins in exactly ZERO politics. Meanwhile the GOP IS WEAK but conveys strength and clarity. The GOP spots the jugular and goes for the jugular every single time…Dems bleed out while trying to explain some bad slogan liberals have fallen in love with.

    Big tent is no excuse for not attacking the GOP’s jugular. The aim should be to hobble the GOP , then defeat it. That is not nice but , trust me, THAT is ALL the GOP ever does.

    There is simply no reason the Democrats can’t convey direct, attacking, dismantling messages at Republicans. Like it or not American politics is a war game but Democrats act as it is a board game.

    • abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      Tim Wise wrote a compelling op-ed in the WaPo 18 months ago saying that the way to defeat Trump was to make people choose whether or not they want to identify as a racist. I think the Biden campaign adopted this strategy well with their “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” slogan, and only talked about issues to mollify the insistent Left. Wise wrote this article well before there was a clear frontrunner:

  3. Donna Gratehouse on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Prof. Jonathan Haidt, a favorite “conservative whisperer” of the media, has also pushed a form of this concept. When conservatives advocate for bans on abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, they are doing so out of adherence to Moral Foundations rooted in hallowed religious tradition. When liberals advocate egalitarian views he says we do so as a trendy woke “false religion”. Like Taibbi, Haidt ignores the rich plurality of beliefs on the left to present a view of moral motivations centering white male Christian hegemony, which Haidt clearly likes while Taibbi pretends not to.

    • MIGriffin on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

      Since the GOP co-opted the anti-abortion issue, they have almost guaranteed the votes of religious groups that feel morally bound to fight for the right-to-birth, which is not an “ancient” tradition or even mentioned in the Bible. Religious and GOP leaders have become co-dependent because the GOP is thrilled to get a free pass, which it uses to reward its rich patrons, and some conservative Christian leaders have backed themselves into a corner by focusing singly on abortion so that they can’t really confront the GOP. The demonization of same-sex marriage is more recent, and the GOP latched onto it for the same manipulative reason. In the end, it’s all about two big white-male-dominated institutions maintaining their power, not about morality or religion and certainly not about Christ.

  4. Geoff G on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    So Taibbi missed Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, with its meditation on grace in the face of extreme adversity? He missed that Hillary taught Bible studies and spoke often of how her Methodist faith calls her to service? How did he miss John Lewis’s memorial service? George Floyd’s? They were on TV. He needs to interview William Barber. Maybe Barber could convert him, or failing that, at least teach him a little about love and grace.

  5. Harry Scott Coverston on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    Love this description of Haidt. He has some things of value to say about the different bases of values that people use to make moral decisions. Where I disagree with him is the relativist basis that he seems to operate out of. Moral decision making is always contextual. Some contexts demand different values than others. I think Haidt’s born-again conservatism is regrettable.

  6. Random on July 30, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    I would put it somewhat like this.

    Sure, the Republican Party is the “party of religion”. But only just ONE religion — an ultra-conservative Judeo-Christian theism.

    OTOH, the Democratic Party is the party of ALL THE OTHER RELIGIONS that (incidentally) Republicans want to stifle, suppress, shut down or at the very least subordinate to their own, as well as of non-theists and atheists.

    Liberal Christians, liberal Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc, etc — though no less religious than Republicans — will not find a warm welcome to today’s Republican Party, nor will non-theists or atheists.

    (Matt Taibbi is not on my radar.)

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